Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Master of the Mill has received a mixed reception. The book is usually admired for its grand design and aim. Furthermore, the author’s handling of various sections of the book—particularly those sections dealing with social problems and individual moral problems—has been greatly admired. The overall narrative method and technique, however, have not won universal acceptance. The deliberate use of three Mauds, for example, has often struck critics as too contrived. In Grove’s development as a writer, however, the book is central. Unlike the author’s earlier works, which follow a direct chronological line of development, The Master of the Mill approximates a “stream-of-consciousness” novel. Grove tried, for the first time, to create a narrative form which not only records but also actually re-creates the mind of the protagonist. The book, then, shows Grove to be a key modernist of Canadian literature. The modernists attempted to make form and content one. The mode of presentation was not to be an incidental characteristic of the work, but rather a central and necessary one. In his letters, Grove described his need to find that “inevitable form” which would perfectly reveal the cast of mind of his protagonist. Although the techniques used at times disrupt and confuse the reader, and although the various shifts in time make the novel difficult to follow, Grove integrated the various sections of the novel well, if not perfectly.

A comparison of The Master of the Mill with Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) and Nostromo (1904) is helpful here. Both writers wanted to use a pattern that realistically traced the various shifts, alterations, and changes that characterize the human mind’s processing of experience. Because the reader is forced to fit the pieces of the past together, the reader, like the protagonist, is continually aware of the process by which the past is transformed into a meaningful sequence of actions. Grove’s experiments in this direction were not always successful, but his efforts won for him a permanent place in Canadian literature.